Posted by: mafrican | October 1, 2010

Once upon a time in a mobile world…

I recently gave a talk at a government technology conference and instead of stating the obvious about how the cell phone has the potential to revolutionise the way we do things, I thought I’d try something different. Instead, I told everyone a story. The story is set in a parallel world where mobile has been fully embraced as a viable service delivery channel by government. It is not futuristic, everything I described is technically possible right now in our world. It is a story about an ordinary family in South Africa and I’m sure you’ll recognise some of the characters!

Once upon a time in a mobile world there lived a mother, Elizabeth. Elizabeth lived in a family house in Mamelodi, Pretoria. She shared a back room with her daughter, Rosie and her grandson, Molefe. Elizabeth’s mother, Gogo, lived in the main house, along with her brother, his wife and their four children.

Elizabeth was awoken on Monday morning at 6.00am by the persistent sound of her cell phone alarm clock beeping. As she was getting ready for the day, she suddenly remembered that she hadn’t yet bought her bus ticket for the week. She quickly SMS’d the words “bus ticket” to a toll free SMS number. A few seconds later she heard the welcome beep of the ticket arriving on her phone. She saved the ticket, put her phone on silent, hid it in its usual place and hurried to the bus stop.

The bus was on time. As she climbed into the bus, her ticket was automatically acknowledged by the ticketing system without her having to remove it from its hiding place.

Elizabeth was a domestic worker by day and an entrepreneur in her spare hours. While she was having breakfast at work, she used her phone to order more stock for her business. She and a few of her friends had clubbed together and were selling vitamin and health products. Her phone was integral to the running of her business – orders from customers came directly via SMS to her phone and she could even accept payments via her phone when she delivered the products.

Elizabeth quickly sent a missed call to one of her friends, also a domestic worker in the complex. A few minutes later the doorbell rang and her friend arrived. Elizabeth ran a catering business over the weekends, where she prepared the food and decorated the tables for various occasions. It was her friend’s 25th wedding anniversary and Elizabeth was doing all the catering and decorating. She showed her friend her catalogue, a series of photos on her phone, showcasing her best work and a deal was struck.

Later that morning she received an SMS from Rosie, her daughter, reminding her that it was their turn to pay for electricity and water for the family house. Elizabeth sighed, but typed in the code *120*1234567# and followed the menu system to purchase both prepaid electricity and water vouchers. Two beeps indicated that the token numbers had arrived as messages on her phone.

14-year old Molefe was on his way to school. Because of the teachers’ strike, he wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He soon discovered that there wasn’t school today. A part of him was happy, but another part felt frustrated. He wanted to become a doctor one day and he was working very hard at school to achieve this ambition. At the moment he was struggling a bit with maths and he needed some help. He logged on to MXit on his phone and noticed a service called “Dr Maths”. He’d heard about Dr Maths from his friends and decided to give it a go. He was very happy to see that, because of the strike, Dr Maths was offering support all day, instead of just afternoons and evenings. He spent quite a bit of time chatting via text to a maths tutor, the two of them working through a maths problem, until he understood where he was going wrong. He was able to do the rest of his maths homework easily.

When he got home, Gogo asked him to accompany her to pick up her pension. She had received an SMS to tell her it was ready for collection. The two of them walked down the street, Gogo telling him how, in the past, she’d have to wake up at 4.30 am in the morning to get in the queue outside the municipal offices, where all the old people would wait in the hot sun, sometimes for two days. Now she could pick it up at the local Spaza shop down the street.
When they got to the Spaza, Gogo showed the owner the SMS with the special code. He connected a device to his phone and asked her to press her thumb against it. Once this was done, he typed in her code on his phone and then gave her the pension money from the till.

Rosie, Elizabeth’s daughter, worked as a nurse at the local clinic. It was her responsibility to do a pre-check on the people visiting the clinic, deciding whether they needed to see the doctor. In the past, days at the clinic had been extremely busy and many people had to be turned away at the end of the day. Nowadays, with the new cellphone appointment system, things were much more manageable. Anyone wanting to visit the clinic can book by typing in *120*CLINIC# (254642) on their phones. They then choose a date and a time to visit their closest clinic. The booking system then selects an available time and date closest to their choice and issues them a number for the queue.

When Elizabeth arrived home from work, she noticed that the garbage had still not been collected. She decided to report this to the Government Smartline. This is a toll-free service-delivery information and citizen support system that can be accessed 24 hours a day via SMS, a USSD menu system, a voice-based menu system or by speaking to a Smartline operator. Elizabeth had previously registered for the system and it was now customised for her needs and had all her details. She decided to use the voice-based system and dialled the number. An artificial voice gave her a list of menu items to choose from. It also said there was a service information message for her. She typed “*” to listen to it. A recorded message informed her that on Tuesday 31 August 2010 there would be no busses available, since the bus drivers would also join the strike.

She then typed “#” to return to the main menu, followed by a “2” to report a service delivery incident. The voice then listed the types of service delivery incidents and she chose “6” for garbage delivery. The system asked her to describe the problem and she responded with “Our garbage has not been collected for 2 weeks”. The service thanked her for reporting the problem and gave her a reference number. It also automatically sent the reference number to her via SMS.

Elizabeth typed “#” to return to the main menu and decided to check on the status of her request for an RDP house, which she had applied for in 1999. She selected “5” for “Housing” and then “2” for “RDP Status Check” when prompted to do so by the voice menu. The system responded with “You are now 537 on the list for RDP housing in your area. A house should be available in approximately 15 month’s time.” She was very happy to hear the news.

Before she went to sleep that night, she cancelled her bus ticket for the next day and received a refund. She also bought a ticket for the taxi and checked her bank account details – all via her cellphone.

… And they all lived happily ever after.

Posted by: mafrican | October 1, 2010

Can Africa leapfrog and lead in mobile learning?

Over the past few days I attended Education Week 2010 in Johannesburg. What was quite interesting was that everyone was talking about the urgent need to integrate technology into teaching and learning, but what they actually meant by “technology” was “computers”. Over the last 4 years, CSIR Meraka Institute has done it’s utmost to try to change this mindset, so that the cellphone can be seen as a viable technology device for teaching and learning, both inside and outside the classroom. We’ve had our challenges, but on the whole, we’ve shown that not only is it viable, but it’s the way all learning will eventually go. We believe that it’s an opportunity for Africa to both leapfrog and lead!

The introduction of the $100 Ideos Google/Huawei cell phone might just be the catalyst that we’ve been waiting for. While many of our mobile learning pilots (e.g. MobilED audio wiki) have looked at innovative ways to use cell phones in the classroom, they’ve largely focused on basic and feature phones. With the possibility of an affordable smartphone in the hands of every learner in South Africa, the sky’s the limit! So we’re in the process of taking out our thinking caps and daring to imagine a “One Smartphone per Child” world…

Posted by: mafrican | March 11, 2010

Mobile-friendly unfriendly websites

My all time favourite mobile app is the Opera Mini web browser. I actually gave up the iphone my husband bought me as a surprise because Apple refused to make Opera Mini available and forces you to use Safari instead!

I constantly have Opera Mini running in the background on my phone (now a Nokia 5700) and it’s the only way in which I access the internet at home and on trips. I find it a pretty intuitive, convenient and simple process. However, one thing that REALLY irritates me are the sites out there that automatically reformat their content when they pick up that you’re accessing from a phone. Not only do they reformat, but they “dumb down” the content and take away functionality as well!!! I could live with that if they gave you the option to “view the full site” and exit “mobile view”. And some actually do – examples being Google, Gmail, Facebook and Twitter. Alas, the vast majority of so-called “mobile-friendly” site are anything but!

There is some light at the end of the tunnel though, with the new “touch-friendly” sites that are starting to make their appearance (specifically Twitter and Facebook). Since my Nokia is a touchphone, it makes browsing and interacting via your phone a real pleasure. I honestly believe that in the very near future the phone will be the platform of choice to access content and services via the mobile web. It’s already the case in Africa. Come on website developers – rise to the occasion, it’s going to be a whole new mobile world wide web out there!

Posted by: mafrican | February 24, 2010

Cell phones with a “sell by” date

Recently Vodafone announced it’s new cell phone (mobile phone for any Europeans out there) for the developing world (or for “emerging markets”, which seems to be the more politically-correct terminology nowadays).  I guess the road to hell is paved with good intentions…  It shows the total lack of understanding of what’s important in Africa and the lack of research into what your “typical” poor African really wants.  By announcing this low cost, low function device, (along with huge fanfare and back-patting) it ignores the aspirations of millions of Africans.  Just because people are poor and are currently using very basic phones, this does not mean they want more of the same. 

As my colleague so aptly put it – “Obviously poor people are assumed to have no taste.”

My prediction is that the phone will not take Africa by storm.  Most people will look at cheaper feature phones (there’s a reason why the Samsung E250 is doing so well in Africa!) and the main competition will come from second-hand feature and smartphones.

Posted by: mafrican | September 22, 2009

Patience and promise(s)?

Over the past 3 years the people of South Africa have been incredibly patient… And, no, I’m not referring to politics (or sex or religion).  I’m referring to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.  We’ve been through emotional roller coasters – can we, can’t we, will we, won’t we… deliver a successful World Cup experience to South Africans and the expected huge influx of visitors?

Once we started seeing actual stadiums magically appear in the host cities, we heaved a collective sigh of relief.  It finally started to look like a reality.  However, I wonder whether anyone has actually considered the average South African in the (non) streets?  We’ve been incredibly patient through tremendous disruptions to our road infrastructure.  Make no mistake, I know fixing our road infrastructure is a GOOD thing.  The BAD thing is, it’s all happening simultaneously.  All our roads are being repaired at the same time – there is no option of alternative routes – they, too are being upgraded.  We’ve become accustomed to arriving late for work and we employ all kinds of underhand tactics to try to ensure that  meetings are held at our premises, rather than at someone else’s!  I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really, really tired of all the roadworks and the daily schlepp to and from work/school/etc!!!  So, rest of the world, please, please give us a break and take a moment’s silence to say “thank-you” to the ordinary (wo)man in the street here in the 2010 host country!

And another thing, this is Africa.  And Africa’s definitely not for sissies!  We, as South Africans, promise to rise to the occasion and will demonstrate our typical hospitality.  I’m sure there will be incidents of crime.  You will probably get ripped off and pay more for airfare, food and accomodation than you expected.  Maybe everything won’t be as perfect as I’m sure it is in England, or  the US or even Slovenia!  BUT you will also experience the warmth, the vitality, the energy and the promise of Africa.   So, keep an open mind, be positive and enjoy the unique African soccer experience!